Friday, May 26, 2017

Living thing: relationship counseling for flags and the people who fly them

As Iwo Jima moments go, it was not very dramatic, but you gotta do what you gotta do: yesterday I was enjoying a walk under an umbrella in a tempestuous rain storm when I noticed down the street that the wind had knocked over a US flag that a neighbor had displayed outside next to their driveway. So I picked it up and re-set it the best I could in its brick footing.

"Thanks," said the flag.

Undramatic Iwo Jima moments are one thing. Talking flags are another.

"Hey, citizen," said the flag, "don't act so surprised. I'm a living thing."

I'd heard something along those lines before, back when my job required a nodding (bowing? handshaking?) acquaintance with flag etiquette. But I'd never heard it expressed that way, much less by a flag. I wasn't sure that I should enter a conversation that might serve to have me either institutionalized or sanctified, so I just kept to myself.

"Good for you, citizen!" continued the flag. "Demand statutory evidence! Here you go: 4 U.S. Code §8: 'The flag represents a living country and is itself considered a living thing.'"

Which to my mind still did not explain the gift of language. Which, nonetheless, kept on giving.

"So yeah, thanks for setting me up again. I'm not sure that these homeowners here have made adequate or--ahem ahem--legal arrangements for my display. You wouldn't care to make a citizen's arrest, would you?"

I internally retreated to the dictum that a person's home was his or her castle and left it there.

"No big deal. After all, I'm just an American flag." (Did I detect a note of sarcasm?) "You wouldn't believe what people do to me. And I don't mean the burning. That is hateful, but at least it's honest. What I'm talking about is advertising."


"Yeah, it's right there in §8(i) of the Code: 'The flag should not be used for advertising purposes in any manner whatsoever.' But tell you what: this weekend is Memorial Day weekend: I want you to count the number of ads in the paper that use the flag to flog their pursuit of Almighty Mammon."

While I did notice the euphony of "flag to flog," I also noticed the second instance of serial colons, which might be--can I say?--a red flag for some kind of health condition.

"Now I understand the code means an actual flag, not a a representation of a flag, but hey: I'm a living thing, not a lawyer. [Pregnant pause] What? No rim shot? Nevermind: Look: I'm a living thing like you are not: I'm a symbol. So can you blame me for taking symbols seriously, even printed ones?"

Another serial colon. Something's going on.

"People just don't get it. They just don't know! They just don't think! They think they're respecting me, but they might as well be spitting on me. Give me Colin Kaepernick's kneeling any old day! At least he's thinking! Since when was kneeling disrespectful? It might not be statutory, but it is respectful. As to respect: look at the first sentence of the preamble of §8: 'No disrespect should be shown to the flag of the United States of America.'"

Damn. Four instances of serial colons. Was it a warning sign of something? Apoplexy?

"But since I'm talking, and since some kind of demon cat's got your tongue, I might as well vent: this is the South, right: pickup trucks flying both me and the Confederate flag: together: side by side?"

Whew! Triple colons! Look out!

"What's with that? And these are people that'd be happy to hurt you if they saw you burning me in protest! They'd be exhilarated to hurt Colin Kaepernick, preferably by lynch mob! And yet: and yet: and yet: and yet: that flag: that Confederate battle flag: that flag betrayed me and straight up tried to kill me."

Then suddenly I realized that this was a bad case of hypothermia. The flag was wobbling on its flimsy stand. I pulled the flagpole out of the brick footings and dug out a deeper hole with my boot. In all the mud this was an easy thing to do. I replaced the pole and pushed the whole setup down as hard as I could. I couldn't keep it from getting wet, but I could try to keep it steady.

"Whew. Wow. Thanks for that. What, was I spewing colons again? I always do that. It's a sure sign of flag exposure."

We shared a moment of silence.

"So what would you do? If somebody straight up betrayed you and tried to kill you?"

I figured I might spew a few colons myself, hypothermia notwithstanding. I gave the flagpole one last push for the sake of security and then held the flag out from the pole to let the wind lash some of the water out of it because it was soaked to the stars and stripes and then I left the living thing standing by the neighbor's driveway.

Today I went back to take the pictures. It's sunny. Perfect weather for patriots ;-)

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Scalawag #2

The meme was from a so-called "common sense conservative." It had the picture of the statue of Robert E. Lee being removed from its pedestal in New Orleans, to the accompaniment of words from Orwell's 1984:
“Every record has been destroyed or falsified, every book rewritten, every picture has been repainted, every statue and street building has been renamed, every date has been altered. And the process is continuing day by day and minute by minute. History has stopped. Nothing exists except an endless present in which the Party is always right.”
A common sense conservative should be able to summon a basic tenet of conservative education: that the essence of learning is to be able to make distinctions.

In this case: what distinguishes the world of Orwell's Big Brother from what is happening in New Orleans? The answer is so obvious as to be laughable: in fact, it is just the opposite of history stopping, of books being rewritten, of dates being altered.

Far from stopping or altering or changing, it is all those things being preserved and being held open to the bright light of day. It is the penetration of euphemism--the notorious, Yankee-fooling, misdirectional doublespeak of institutionalized Southern white rule--by a plain understanding of the reality inside the nimbus: that the Confederacy rested upon slavery, and the South before Civil Rights rested upon the violent political and social subjection of African-Americans.

And those things are what statues of Robert E. Lee symbolize. Keep in mind we are dealing with symbolism here. It is an important distinction (the essence of learning). None of what I say vilifies Robert E. Lee the man, the soldier who fought a war. It vilifies Robert E. Lee the statue, the symbol of a South that refused for years to back away from its vicious system of apartheid.

And that is what his statue symbolizes. That is what the Confederate battle flag symbolizes. Unless you live in a euphemistic world. And if you do, don't go calling yourself a common sense conservative. Because you've just surrendered your common sense at Appomattox and entered a state of altered reality. All I can say is thank god you're no longer the Big Brother you used to be.

Shown is my version of the meme. Let lynching victim Laura Nelson face Lee on her own pedestal. Let disgust rise in your gorge. This is the Calvary of Southern history.

Monday, May 22, 2017


You won't find me mourning the dismantling of Confederate statues in public squares in New Orleans. You'll find me wondering what the hell took them so long to do it. And chuckling at the Minnesota-born gubernatorial candidate in Virginia who likens it to ISIS destruction of ancient monuments: does anyone see any actual destruction going on? I hope they figure out how to get some Federal greenbacks out of these treasonous travesties of tradition requiring public money for upkeep.

I'm a scalawag. Always have been. In case you don't know, "scalawag" is what Confederates called fellow southerners who supported the Union. In my case I suppose it comes from having a Yankee mother. But my father was a New Orleans native, and the maddest I ever saw him was when a friend described Abraham Lincoln as a racist.

I remember arguments in elementary school. "You have to be a Confederate because you were born in the South." I wasn't having any of that. I ordered me a Yankee uniform from F.A.O. Schwartz and wore it trackside when Chattanooga's railroad symbol, The General, returned home after a trip to the New York World's Fair (this was before the Supreme Court let Georgia steal it). The only person who even noticed was a nice old lady who said, "Look at the cute little Confederate!" My blood could've steamed The General down the track a ways.

Back then I didn't know that I had a notable Confederate ancestor--Joseph Adolphe Chalaron, a brother of my great-great grandfather (from New Orleans, natch), whose published and unpublished reminiscences of his experiences as an artillery officer richly inform The Pride of the Confederate Artillery: The Washington Artillery in the Army of Tennessee by Nat Hughes (who is also, by picquant coincidence, a Chattanoogan). Post-bellum, Chalaron became secretary of the Louisiana Historical Society and archivist/superintendent of Confederate Memorial Hall in New Orleans.

For all that, we--not even my father--knew nothing of him until one day at Chickamauga battlefield. I was with my parents and my son, who was probably four or five, which would put this at around 1987. As I remember it, my mother was reading one of those large, rectangular, metal unit markers with raised type and noticed something: "Look, Steve [my father]--here's somebody whose last name is Chalaron." This name, one of my father's middle names and passed along as a middle name to my older brother Kevin, is not all that common even in Louisiana where my father was born.

J. A. Chalaron then turned up again on a marker up on Missionary Ridge, right above the McCallie School, almost atop the eastbound tube of the highway tunnel. It turned out to be the point where the Union army burst through the Confederate lines in their famous breakout from the siege of Chattanooga in 1863. After that my father started looking into him, which restored his memory to his descendants.

His institution, Confederate Memorial Hall, is now a museum in New Orleans. It is just off Lee Circle, one of the places that just had its statue removed. With "the second-largest collection of Confederate Civil War items in the world" (Wikipedia), it is safe to say that the museum--a private non-profit entity--has a future assured by never-ending fascination with the Civil War, even though Marse Robert will no longer be keeping it company.

Unless the museum buys the statue. The museum can do whatever it wants to remember the Lost Cause. After all, it has a mission.

But the cause itself needs to remain good and lost. In order for that to happen, we must not forget the basic truths that Robert Lee and my Chalaron ancestor fought to destroy the United States of America and establish a nation founded upon African-American slavery; and then, when the South's bid for nationhood failed, it continued by violence to deny citizenship to African-Americans and to keep them in peonage. Meanwhile the racial hegemonists celebrated and maintained their thrall in part by putting up statues in public places.

Whatever kind of statue can memorialize those truths is the kind that should go up not just in New Orleans, but all over the South.

That would make this scalawag happy. After all, I have to live with the undying shame of sending three kids to Sullivan South High School (Sullivan County, TN) whose mascot is a Confederate and where the Confederate battle flag blooms during football season. Tradition, they say. Okay. If your "tradition" rests on the foundation of the denial of basic human and civil rights to others because of their so-called "race," I'd just as soon you check into the Confederate Memorial Hall and stay there. Because that's where you belong: securely in the past.

It's a scalawag thang. You might not understand.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

The StriKKKe zone, part 2: Lester Maddox swings and ...

After my last blog about Democrats in the South, some friends chimed in. "Lester Maddox is a great example," said one. Another said, "To think that we lived through these events, and they're now considered history!"

So I remembered Lester Maddox and considered the ways he personifies the dissolution of the Democratic Solid South.

I lived through Lester Maddox, but not in the way some of my Georgia friends surely did, particularly ones who lived in Atlanta, the stage of Maddox's racist living theater.

I grew up in Chattanooga. Atlanta was a few hours' drive away--a drive that got quite a bit shorter after I-75 was finished--but it was just far enough away that my family only went there once a year, at Christmas time, to shop. On one of these occasions I took $27.10 worth of allowance money from my first busted piggy bank to Atlanta and spent it at FAO Schwarz on German- and British-made medieval miniatures. I learned early on that the North Pole was actually global commerce.

I also am ensconced in white privilege, but for some reason have always felt --without really being aware what it was--that it was a candle that couldn't burn down quickly enough for the good of the human race. Given this, and given also my childish sense of Atlanta's magic, it is no wonder that Lester Maddox's assault on both ideals is seared in my memory.

July 4, 1964. Newspaper front pages across the country blazed with an AP photo of Maddox--with a pistol--and his son--with an axe handle--threatening an African-American man, who is walking away from them. The accompanying story would have told how the black fellow went to eat at Maddox's restaurant, but Maddox prevented him with his armed intervention in the parking lot. It was then Maddox became, to me, one of the irreducible, comic-book villains of the American drama.

Lester Maddox, in post-Internet parlance, had gone viral. But I didn't know the half of it.

It is instructive at this long remove to look at the phenomenon again, starting with the picture. Notice the microphones and the writing pad along the right side of the picture. Look at the guy that Maddox and his son are threatening. Hands on his lapels, straightening his jacket, turning to the reporters, and saying ... what? I'm thinking it was along the lines of "Don't worry. I'll be back."

The media was there because they'd apparently been tipped off that something was going to happen. It was July 3, 1964, the day after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 had gone into effect. Maddox, already at this point twice a losing candidate for mayor of Atlanta, was an unabashed and outspoken segregationist. He had used newspaper advertising for his restaurant, the Pickrick, to promote his anti-civil rights views. The restaurant was an obvious target for a legal, Civil Rights Act desegregation bust.

The next day, July 4--the day that his picture went viral in newspapers coast to coast--Maddox held a rally attended by 11,000 people who came to hear him and other segregationist firebrands. Among others, Maddox invited George Wallace of Alabama (who described the Civil Rights Act as "the most monstrous piece of legislation ever enacted") and Alabama KKK Grand Dragon Calvin Craig.

Maddox, together with another Atlanta restaurateur, sued to challenge the constitutionality of the Act. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy moved the suit quickly to a three-judge trial, which was decided unanimously against Maddox in late July. He could no longer legally bar customers according to their race. Though he appealed, the Supreme Court did not grant a stay on the injunctions.

Maddox closed his restaurant rather than serve blacks. He also turned it into a Mecca of segregationist kitsch, selling among other things axe handles--popularly known as "Pickrick toothpicks"). Also, because this was a presidential election year--with the perpetrator of the Civil Rights Act, Lyndon Baines Johnson, pitted against Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater, who opposed the Act as Federal overreach--the Democrat Maddox delighted in breaking party ranks by selling"Goldwater '64" bumper stickers and cans of "Gold water" soda.

In December the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the Civil Rights Act, and Maddox--after a few twists and turns to evade the law--permanently shut down the Pickrick. But his fight, and the fight of segregationists in the South, was far from over. As Kevin Kruse observes in White Flight: Atlanta and the Making of Modern Conservatism, "the Civil Rights Act did not significantly weaken the power of segregationists. By making manifest their darkest predictions about the supposedly coercive nature of liberal politics and the 'tyranny' of a national government running roughshod over the rights of individual businessmen, the enactment and enforcement of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 paradoxically strengthened the politics of white resistance throughout the South." [p. 229]

Maddox probably never voted Democratic again--on the national level: In 1968 he supported Alabama segregationist George Wallace's run as American Independent Party candidate; in 1976 when Wallace dropped the AIP banner to run as a Democrat, Maddox himself picked it up and ran; in 1980 he endorsed Ronald Reagan. 

But that was the national Democratic Party, where liberals ruled. At the state level Maddox was far from done with being a Democrat. In this, the twilight of the Solid South--when winning the Democratic primary was tantamount to winning the general election--things were changing, but old habits and entrenched organizations died hard. To be a Democrat was still for many to smell the campfires before the Confederate high tide at Gettysburg.

Building on his status as a racist, states'-rightist folk hero and endorsed by the KKK, Maddox ran for governor of Georgia in 1966. His main opponent in the Democratic primary was former governor Ellis Arnall, who was considered a progressive--because of the anti-political-machine reforms enacted during his term--as well as a liberal in race relations--partly because he accepted the Supreme Court's mandate to end Georgia's white-only Democratic primary. Maddox called Arnall "the granddaddy of forced racial integration." As for the national party, Arnall made no bones about the fact that he was a Democrat from top to bottom: "I am a local Democrat, a state Democrat, and a national Democrat, and anyone who doesn't like it can go to hell." [p. 231, The Politics of Change in Georgia: A Political Biography of Ellis Arnall, by Harold P. Henderson]

Arnall was the top vote-getter, with almost 30%, but due to the presence of other candidates (mostly a state senator named Jimmy Carter), he was thrown into a runoff with second-place Maddox. During the primary campaign and the run-off, Arnall looked past Maddox to what he considered his likely general-election opponent, Goldwater-Republican Bo Callaway.

As is often the case in one-party states with open primaries, Republicans crossed over to vote in the Democratic primary for the candidate they thought had less of a chance against Callaway. That candidate was Maddox. The tactic worked--at least in the short run--when Maddox pulled off an upset against Arnall.

However, liberals and blacks got a measure of revenge against the Republican in the general election by writing in Arnall, which prevented Callaway from reaching the 50% that the law required. The choice between the top two vote-getters went to the legislature, which, heavily Democratic and bound by a loyalty oath, made Maddox governor.

(Once governor he reportedly did a fair job--meaning he wasn't as racist in action as he was in words. Somehow we're supposed to feel good about that? And, a propos of nothing, here's a nice article in media res--Nov. 29, 1966--from the Harvard Crimson of all places by the euphoniously-named Atlanta native Boisfeuillet Jones, Jr.)

To give a sense of how much Democrats dominated Georgia, the Republicans in 1966 limited their campaigning to the gubernatorial race and ran zero down-ballot contests for statewide positions. Although Callaway was just as opposed to integration as Maddox, he was a Republican, so Maddox wasted no time comparing Callaway's campaign to Sherman's March to the Sea. 

But it was Goldwater himself who gave the perfect, clueless postscript to the election, trying to distance himself from attitudes that his own policy positions exacerbated. In an interview with CBS newsman Walter Cronkite shortly after the legislature had chosen Maddox, Goldwater voiced his regret that the decision hadn't gone to Callaway, calling Maddox "a fellow that belongs back in the Stone Age" and saying it was too bad the legislature didn't send him back to selling hot dogs. When told it was fried chicken, he said, "Is that right? And baseball bats."

With that it's back to you, pitcher Curt Schilling. History is more complicated than baseball. Quite often, it seems, winners don't really win, and sometimes nobody wins bigger than a loser. If you want a good example, look at the history of the South after the Civil War. Another thing: the game never ends. Now there's a Democrat running for Maddox's old office of governor who wants to be the first black female governor in American history. 

So, as Georgia favorite son Martin Luther King, Jr.,--whom Governor Maddox denied the privilege of lying in state in the State Capitol after King's assassination--said, "the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice." Also, for Curt Schilling's benefit, its speed is like a reverse changeup on steroids--a pitch that starts slow, slow, slow, but when you're 11 years old, it SuddenlyZoomsBy. Racists always swing at it ... and miss it. Every time. It doesn't matter what team they play for.